The third half

April 07, 2005

KURDS AND SHIITE Arabs argued for weeks over the makeup of Iraq's new government, but the strange thing about it was that everyone knew for some time who the leading figures were likely to be. A Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, and Shiite and Sunni vice presidents were duly confirmed yesterday. Still to come is a Shiite prime minister, who will actually call the shots.

So why all the dickering? The sparring, in part, was over which of the few participating Sunni politicians would make an appropriate vice president. Kurds and Shiites both wanted to pick their favorite Sunni; neither paid much attention to the Sunnis' own aspirations. They finally settled on the outgoing president of the transitional government, Ghazi al-Yawer, who may have seemed like a safe choice but whose appointment was promptly denounced by his Sunni colleagues. Meanwhile, the largely Sunni insurgency continues apace.

Another sticking point was control of the oil ministry. That's fitting, at a time when Americans are paying $2.30 a gallon for gasoline. Oil is the great unmentionable when it comes to Iraq - but the fact is that the Bush administration was tired of seeing Saddam Hussein grow wealthy on petroleum revenues, and now that he's gone, his successors are fighting to get their hands on the control valves, especially with the worldwide price so high. The Kurds and Shiites, as of yesterday, had agreed to move ahead without resolving the issue; the insurgents have been taking a different tack, by blowing up pipelines.

An especially nasty local political fight is brewing in the oilfield city of Kirkuk, where the Kurds who are now in charge have been trying to make it clear to Sunni Arab and Turkmen residents that they should go somewhere else.

All this notwithstanding, a sizable number of Sunni leaders have had second thoughts about boycotting the January elections and are trying to get involved. One group of Sunni imams issued a fatwa in favor of Sunnis joining the police, apparently on the grounds that Sunni interests should be pursued within the power structures as well from the outside. Other clerics denounced them, though. Sunni politicians are divided over the wisdom of continuing the insurgency campaign against other Iraqis; they are all but united in their desire to see the Americans leave. Washington may think last fall's battle for Fallujah is ancient history by now, but Sunnis are bitterly aware, as a recent report by the Iraqi government points out, that 70 percent of the city's buildings have been destroyed and a large majority of its residents are living in tents or elsewhere with relatives.

The divided and incomplete government now faces the task of writing a constitution, with bombs still going off every day. Success, if it comes, is likely to bring a call for American withdrawal. That said, the best the United States can do right now is offer sincere counseling along the lines of half a loaf being better than none. The oil ministry might be a good place to start.

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